By John Delong
When Winston-Salem Open tournament director Bill Oakes fielded questions during a Media Day press conference on Tuesday, he was asked to explain why this year’s field was so much stronger than the field at last year’s inaugural tournament.
It almost came off as a loaded question, as if last year’s tournament wasn’t all that strong.
Truth of the matter is, last year’s field with 11 of the Top 50 players and 38 of the top 81 was an outstanding field – especially considering that the event is played the week before the US Open, when players routinely take the week off, and that it was a new tournament that had so many question marks in the minds of players.
But this year’s field is not simply outstanding, it is phenomenal.
Led by defending champion John Isner, World No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and former World No. 1 Andy Roddick, the field includes 22 players currently ranked in the Top 50 and 38 players ranked in the Top 68. And with three wildcards remaining in Oakes’ pocket, those numbers will likely rise to 25 of the Top 50 and 41 of the Top 68.
Suffice it to say that this year’s field is exponentially stronger than any of the fields of its predecessor, the Pilot Penn Championships in New Haven, Conn.
"We have an amazing field," Oakes said. "When the tournament was first conceived, no one would have expected that we would have such a field the week before the US Open."
Oakes made an analogy that puts the field in perspective. If this field was judged the same way football players are judged, all 38 of the top 68 would be Pro Bowlers. If this field was judged the same way that baseball players are judged, it would be filled with All-Stars.
Oakes said he thought the main reason why the field was so strong this year is that the word got out among players that coming to Winston-Salem is the perfect way to prepare for the US Open, while at the same time being treated as royalty.
"Traditionally, a lot of players say, ‘I need that week off,’" Oakes said. "But what we found out is that players enjoyed themselves here, they found it to be great preparation. We had guys that were playing and then staying after they lost. We had numerous guys stay til Monday after the tournament, because they could practice, the site is five minutes from the hotel, they could get practice courts.
"Then on more of a technical level, we’re the only tournament that uses the exact same court and the exact same balls as the US Open. Some of the tournaments (in the Emirates Airline US Open Series) use different tennis balls. Some of them have a similar court but not the exact same with the same full cushioning system of the Deco Turf system.
"All that really does help these guys get prepared for what many people call the hardest Slam of the year – New York, 14 days, day and night, you might play until 2 o’clock in the morning. I think for the guys, what I’ve heard from them is this is just great prep. They were relaxed when they left here and they were ready to compete. And I think it showed when they got to New York. Some of the guys had their best Grand Slams, much less US Opens."
There’s no doubt that word of mouth about last year’s tournament has led to this year’s impressive field.
Consider this: All seven of the top seven seeds in last year’s tournament – Roddick, Jurgen Melzer, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Marcos Baghdatis, Nikolay Davydenko, Isner and Kevin Anderson – have chosen to return this year.
So this year’s field is all of those guys PLUS the likes of Tsonga, Viktor Troicki, Feliciano Lopez, Marcel Granollers, Sam Querrey, Michael Llodra and others.
"I think that Andy and John and a lot of other players were some of our best marketing efforts," Oakes said. "I think our tournament turned out to be an event the players found to be a players’ event.
"I had opportunity to see Andy at the Miami tournament and we were talking and he began on a diatribe about how much he loved Winston-Salem, how great a time he had, how easy it was, not only for him but for his wife, because they could walk down Fourth Street and enjoy themselves.
"The other thing is that there are a number of, let’s call them ‘picky’ players, that are high maintenance. I had a number of them stop me at the US Open last year to tell me how much of a great time they had. The ATP was surprised when I was joking with some of the people that some of these guys who have reputations around the world as being tough to please were talking about how much fun they had."
Oakes also said he talked to Isner at Wimbledon, and the World No. 11 from Greensboro is looking forward to defending his crown.
"He couldn’t be happier to come back," Oakes said. "I had an opportunity to see him at Wimbledon and he was talking about how much fun he had last year and how great it is to be able to spend some time with his family. So we’re excited to have him back."